Log Cabin Chronicles

Book Review

JOHN MAHONEY

Who killed Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, while he was standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee?

Not me, argues the man who pleaded guilty and has been behind bars for nearly 24 years.

I bought the rifle but I didn't pull the trigger, writes accused murderer James Earl Ray from his prison cell in the River Bend Penitentiary in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ray maintains in his book Who Killed Martin Luther King? that:

  • He was an "unwitting part of a conspiracy" to assassinate the black civil rights leader.
  • He was set up by a shadowy figure he knew only as "Raoul."
  • He was coerced into pleading guilty by his lawyer, who was to be paid $165,000 by a famous writer for the exclusive rights to Ray's story on the condition that Ray plead guilty (if he pleaded innocent a public trial would be held -- then all the details would be in the public domain for others to write about.)
  • His will to resist pleading guilty to a murder he didn't commit was weakened because of eight months of "torture" and sensory deprivation by his jailers.
  • The FBI was behind the assassination of the Reverend King, whom they had code-named "Zorro" during their years of surreptitious surveillance, wiretapping, and covert harassment.

    Ray, now 64 and still facing 76 years of a 99-year sentence, is "calling upon the nation to urge the president to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the FBI's involvement in this case."

    He is not alone in his belief in a conspiracy or that he deserves a fair trial, in public.

    Jesse Jackson, who held the dying Martin Luther King in his arms that fateful day in Memphis, contends in the book's foreword that he has never accepted the "one crazy man" political assassination theory:

    "I have always believed that the government was part of a conspiracy, either directly or indirectly, to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King -- there were many in the government -- J. Edgar Hoover among them -- who had an intense, visceral, and deep emotional hatred and fear of Dr. King."

    The Reverend Jackson says that the American people and their government can settle for nothing less than "a full and complete investigation" and a "fair trial for James Earl Ray."

    Attorney Mark Lane, who wrote the JFK assassination best seller Rush to Judgment and the preface to Ray's book, is convinced James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King.

    "Ray has been subjected to brutal treatment, was the victim of a murder attempt in prison (he was stabbed 22 times in 1981), and was badly mistreated and tortured by the authorities," he claims. "Ray is clearly the victim of federal and state lawlessness in this matter." Lane adds that a complete, honest investigation would "conclude that Hoover and other FBI officials were responsible for the assassination of Dr. King."

    Very serious allegations, indeed.

    So, is James Earl Ray merely an innocent guy who was targeted as the scapegoat in a political assassination? Perhaps, but there is no "Mr. Nice Guy" here.

    Froma family of chronic losers, Ray bungled his first theft in a whorehouse during his early teens, quit school at 16, got a General Discharge after doing time in an Army stockade for going AWOL, and by the time he was 21 was jailed for burglary. It was all downhill after that.

    Within two years he was "accidentally" shot during a holdup and imprisoned for two years. He was free for about one year, then was sentenced to nearly four years on a felony charge. He was paroled in 1958. Two years later he was sent up for 20 years, this time for armed robbery. In 1961 he made an unsucessful attempt to escape. He blew it again in 1965.

    But on April 23, 1967, he escaped by hiding in the bottom of a large bread box in the back of a prison truck. By mid-July he had earned some money, bought a .38 revolver, and was living in the Har-K Apartments on East Notre Dame in Montreal, as "Eric S. Galt." He soon held up a pimp for $1700, then met "Raoul" -- a slight man in his mid-30s who sat down at Ray's table in the Neptune Tavern.

    Thus began a year-long association that -- according to Ray -- started with smuggling drugs into the United States and Mexico, for which Raoul was to come up with money and a passport for Galt to flee North America; evolved to Ray/Galt (using the alias "Harvey Lowmeyer") buying a Remington model 760, 30/06 rifle at Raoul's request for a supposed gun-smuggling scam; and ended on April 4, 1968, with King's death from a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle from near the back door of the flop house where -- at Raoul's urging -- Ray/Galt rented a room as "John Willard."

    Ray maintains that -- at Raoul's insistence -- he was not at the flophouse when King was killed. He says the first he heard of the murder was a radio bulletin and he hightailed it out of town.

    That April afternoon I was sitting in the back room of a Toronto bar where U.S. draft dodgers hung out -- I was then an investigative writer researching a draft-evasion series for the Vermont Press Bureau -- when the bulletin of King's murder flashed on the TV. I remember one Yankee voice saying, "I wouldn't want to be living down there now." Soon, the inner cities were burning.

    And who in the bar would have guessed that in less than 48 hours Ray would be walking around Toronto, and soon possess an illegal Canadian passport in the name of "Ramon George Sneyd" -- a Toronto police officer. Ray used the passport to escape to London, England, where he was arrested on June 8 while attempting to flee to Belgium to hire on as a mercenary in an African war.

    Like the controversial film JFK, Ray's book Who Killed Martin Luther King? raises many disturbing questions.

    It's published by National Press Books, Bethesda, MD, 20814, and is currently available at the Haskell Free Library.


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